16 March 2015

Felix the Half A-G #nlpoli

If politicians are good at one thing, they are usually good at telling a story that serves their purpose even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, actually what happened.

Last week’s cabinet shuffle is a fine example of that. The story started on the day of the shuffle.  The story appears, in its entirety, in a great column by CBC’s David Cochrane.  He’s accurately repeated the story as Conservative politicians and staffers conveyed it to him. 

No one should doubt Cochrane got the story they told him absolutely correctly.

The thing is, the story Cochrane heard from the politicians isn’t what happened.

Here’s how you can tell.

12 and a Half Ministers and other failed sit-com ideas

Let’s start with one aspect of the story that all media picked up on from the ceremony. It’s a little piece of spin from the Premier’s Office. The cabinet is now 12 and a half ministers.Felix Collins is a half minister, so they say,  because he is receiving half the salary. 

There’s no such thing as a half a cabinet minister, of course.  Being in cabinet is like being pregnant:  you either are or you aren’t.

There’s a law, called the Executive Council Act, that sets down some rules about cabinet.  The cabinet is officially called the executive council. That’s where the name of the law comes from.

Before 1995, there was a specific piece of legislation for every single department.  Every time a premier made a change in the way departments are organized,  the government had to introduce a new bill in the House in order to get authority to set up the department.  The whole affair was very cumbersome.  The Executive Council Act made all that easier.

The new law also identified some specific jobs that had to go to someone in cabinet, regardless of what specific ministries would be called.  For example, there has to be someone called the Registrar General.  He or she “shall be the keeper of the Great Seal of the province and shall issue all documents under the Great Seal and countersign them.” 

The Great Seal is the way the government certifies that official documents are official.  It’s an ancient thing and an ancient role, but it is a crucial part of government operations.  That’s why someone gets to be the Keeper.  The job is so important that it’s one of the two specific jobs listed in the Executive Council Act that must be part of cabinet.

The second job is the Attorney General.  Under Section 4, subsection 3,  the Attorney General shall:

  • “be entrusted with the powers, functions and duties which belong to the office of the Attorney General and Solicitor-General of England by law or usage, so far as those powers, functions and duties are applicable to the province, and also with the powers and duties which belong to the office of the Attorney General and Solicitor-General under the laws of Canada and of the province to be administered and carried into effect by the government of the province;
  • “be charged with the settlement of all instruments issued under the Great Seal of the province;
  • “have the regulation and conduct of all litigation for and against the Crown or a department in respect of subjects within the authority or jurisdiction of the Legislature; and
  • “be charged generally with those other powers, functions and duties that are assigned by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council to the Attorney General.”

The Attorney General also is the minister who administers all Acts, orders and regulations, not assigned to another minister.

So whoever called the Attorney General a “half minister” based on salary either had no idea what is actually going on or was bullshitting big time.  Indeed, whoever cut the salary of the Attorney General was basically jerking everyone around.

It’s not a small job.

The fact that Felix Collins has the job again is a very big deal.

Felix the Fox…or The Cat…whatever

And that very big deal is why some Conservatives are floating the very big fib they told David Cochrane.

Their story goes like this. Paul wanted to appoint Judy. She needed a seat.  The seat Felix Collins had was the one she wanted.  Felix said he would be quitting. 

Here’s how Cochrane put it:

​”Collins' imminent departure was a key part of the decision-making process to appoint Manning.

Sources say that Premier Paul Davis and Collins spoke on the phone just before midnight on Sept. 29 to make sure that was still the case.

Davis was going to appoint Manning to cabinet the next morning, and he wanted to make sure the plan to appoint her and get her to run in her home district was still in place.”

As it turned out, Felix didn’t go anywhere.  Manning went to ground and didn’t turn up any amazing policies.  She became the longest-serving unelected cabinet minister. And then, as Cochrane put it, “when Bill 42 — the legislation to reduce the number of seats in the legislature — pushed the election into November, her expiration date passed.”

Davis had no choice but fire her and put Felix back.

That Felix, b’y.  No flies on he.

Paul’s Choices

The problem with this version of events is that the one person who actually made all the decisions isn’t in it.

Paul Davis decided to put Judy in cabinet knowing at the time the election or a by-election would not occur until the fall of 2015 at the earliest. Davis knew – as Cochrane notes – that no Premier can force a member to resign.  

When Davis appointed Judy Manning to cabinet in September, Davis also knew – at the time – that she would become the longest serving unelected cabinet minister in the province’s history.  There was no way around it.  The earliest likely election date was in the spring, but even that was going to be a stretch.  Davis was looking at a situation in which he could be holding office for a year before going to the polls.

And when Bill 42 appeared – Davis’ bill, by the way – he confirmed there’d be an election well off into the future.  Cochrane presents Bill 42 like it was something that came along without any input from Davis.  The bill “pushed the election to November.”  Nonsense.  The bill didn’t set the date:  Davis did.

When Davis appointed Manning to cabinet, he knew there’d be a batch of by-elections that Manning could have contested.  Manning didn’t decide on her election plans alone: Davis had to agree that she wouldn’t run until Felix left or the general election, whichever came first

When Paul Davis invested the political capital in Manning last September,  it was his choice to do so.  The consequences were plain. Appointing her was Davis’ choice. Six months later, he had plenty of others rather than re-appoint Felix.  Make no mistake:  they were all Davis’ choices.

Davis and his staff also knew that they had the power, in tandem with their star minister, to change her public profile after they ran into trouble. They chose not to do anything. Instead, they buried her away.  The predictable result was that Judy Manning remained a problem for  Paul Davis.

Picking her.  Choice One.

Letting her contest a by-election in Felix’s seat  or the general election was Choice Two.

Launching her so badly was Choice Three.

Not changing her image after appointment was Choice Four.

Every single one of those choice rested with Paul Davis.

Cochrane is right:  a premier cannot force a politician to resign. But force isn’t the only way to do anything.  The Premier has all sorts of ways to get his will.  There’s an open seat on the bench in Clarenville that Davis’ finance minister wants to see filled.  The Chief Judge can;t find any volunteers to fill it.  The only way to put a bum on the bench is to appoint a new judge. Felix met all the requirements. Davis and his staff could have helped Felix into retirement.

That’s Choice Five.

And if that option wasn’t open and they needed to get Manning elected, Davis had other politicians and other levers he could have pulled to make that happen.  Sure Manning had personally refused to run in other seats, but between Davis’ office and Manning’s team, they had other choices. Tony Cornect was willing to take one for the team.  Others would be as well.  If they needed to change direction, Manning and Davis could have easily changed their tune if, as one might expect,  they wanted Manning.

But bear mind, that became an issue only if Davis and his staff suddenly decided they didn’t want to leave Manning in the job as an unelected minister after they’d decided in September to put her there – unelected – and leave her there for as long as the fall of 2015.

Add the other district option as another choice to the pile.  That’s Six.

Davis and his staff could have developed new policies to help her raise her profile, as Cochrane mentioned.  Surely there was something coming in the budget that could have helped.

Seven choices.

Davis could have left Manning in place, cut her modest salary in half, and made her the Attorney General instead of Felix Collins.  They could have called the shuffle 12.25 ministers. 

She’d still be there.

So there you have it.

Eight choices.

At least, not counting the one he actually made to fire Manning and re-appoint Manning to cabinet.

All of them belong to Paul Davis.

The Premier.

None of them belong to Felix Collins.

A message to the back bench

There have been rumblings since last week that some members of Davis’ caucus were upset with Manning and have been for a while.  None of it is concrete.  Rumblings from the department is that Manning worked hard.

Certainly, Manning didn’t make any friends  - and Davis didn’t either  - when Davis appointed someone from outside caucus to sit in cabinet.  Politicians are nothing if they are not ego in a suit. Manning was a giant slap to a lot of egos some of which were already chafed.  

But don’t forget that had to be part of Davis’ calculation when he appointed her.

Something must have happened more recently that made Manning expendable. Some have hinted Manning had botched the 911 talks with St. John’s. Maybe. But that seems like a rather flimsy excuse. other ministers have screwed up far more seriously.  Given that Davis had already invested so heavily in Manning, he had all sorts of choices that could have removed her from justice but not thrown her out entirely.  Whatever happened, it must have been serious.

When it came time to do this cut to cabinet, it pays to notice precisely what Davis did.  He chucked Manning. He put two out of cabinet but let them attend the ceremony to show unity. And Davis made it plain that all the parliamentary secretaries would have to take on extra work.  Manning was the only one who got seriously screwed over. 

Davis actions didn’t look like a well-planned budget speech. He just broke a couple of departments a handed the bits around among the ministers. Davis could have re-organized the ministry. He could have created the department of fisheries, food and aquaculture, for example, by blending fish and aquaculture together with the agriculture bits of what is now a separate agency.  The forestry part of the agency rightly belongs with natural resources.

In one fell swoop,  Davis could have eliminated not just a minister but a senior bureaucracy that was unnecessary as well.  He could have done that in others.  Had Davis eliminated some or all of the parliamentary secretaries, he would have saved even more money.

Davis didn’t do that:  he went for something quick and easy.  Flick Judy.  Shuffle some departments.  Point to the parliamentary secretaries who Davis said will have to shoulder some extra work now. That strongly suggests this wasn’t about the money as much as it was about clearing up a political problem inside caucus.  Davis will need as many votes in the House as he can get.  This way, he has them.

And for a bit of distraction from the real story,  someone is passing around the idea that Felix Collins is a political genius who really made all the decisions about who sits in cabinet. Enough people have said it so that the reporters will repeat it, just like they think there is something called a half a minister because enough Conservative insiders said so.

La dee dee.  One-two-three.

Felix the half ay gee.

If nothing else, it’s a catchy little tune.